Alan Oakley’s appointment as the new editor of The SMH has received a mixed response. Errol Simper was very complimentary in The Australian yesterday and Mark Day was in there offering gratuitous advice on what an old tabloid bloke like him would do to the paper.

One grumpy Fairfax veteran yesterday told Crikey that Oakley sounded like “another tabloid pommy import from News Ltd,” just like his close mate Alan Revell, who is being quoted in support of Oakley after they came out from England together to join News Ltd as sub-editors 20 years ago.

Oakley’s star certainly rose very quickly, despite not being the sort of big drinking knockabout character who thrived under Col Allan and John Hartigan on Rupert’s Sydney tabloids. Col once told me the softly spoken Oakley was “a lovely bloke and a good operator.”

When Oakley was sent down from Sydney to help save the Herald Sun from a rampaging Piers Akerman in 1991, the big toad was derisory, telling colleagues “Sydney said they were sending an editor, but instead they’ve given me a layout sub.”

I was hired as Herald Sun business editor in June 1994 by Oakley and the man who replaced Akerman as editor-in-chief in 1992, Steve Harris. Despite sitting in news conference every day with Oakley for 18 months, it wasn’t that easy to tell how good he was because he was a fairly introspective character. However, the paper did thrive over that period.

Some people used to call Oakley “Black Al,” because he wouldn’t say much as he sat at his desk stroking his eye-brows and reading the copy as the pressure mounted in the late afternoon and early evening.

However, from my point of view he was a good editor because he didn’t interfere too much and would back his staff. He wasn’t like so many other Murdoch editors who are always looking out to push the company’s commercial interests. A good story was a good story, no matter who was complaining.

Oakley was actually replaced as editor against his wishes by Peter Blunden at the beginning of 1996. After much resistance, Steve Harris called the staff together and told them Oakley would be taking up another senior editorial position at News Ltd, but it was only a matter of weeks before he’d resigned and joined PR firm Buchan Communications.

To go from being eased out by Rupert from the Herald Sun in Melbourne to the editor of Australia’s most prestigious newspaper in Sydney is a hell of a rise in less than 10 years and there aren’t too many editors who have gone to the dark side of PR and made such a stunning comeback.

The SMH does have a fairly feral staff culture and AFR editor Glenn Burge, with all his Machiavellian games and conflict, would have fitted in quite well. People like Alan Kennedy, Ruth Ritchie and David Marr can be very feral against anyone they consider to be a right wing News Ltd blow-in, as Miranda Devine would probably attest.

However, Oakley won’t go storming into The SMH uprooting sacred trees. He showed at The Sunday Age that he could get talented but sometimes tricky-to-manage characters such as Peter Ellingsen, Claire Miller and John Elder to perform.

He’s now got the best editorial resource in the country and the challenge will be to let them blossom whilst also dealing with the inevitable cost cutting that will come with the migration of classified advertising revenue to the internet.

Having worked with both Burge and Oakley, I think Fairfax made the right choice. Oakley won’t set the world on fire with his breathtaking intellect and creative brilliance, but he will harness the team and steady the ship at a time when The SMH is listing badly.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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